* Okonjo-Iweala chosen as WTO’s 7th chief* Former Nigeria minister has strong reform record * Geneva-based body leaderless for six months* Trump paralysed some of WTO’s functions(Adds reaction from U.S., China, Nigeria, WHO; start date)By Emma Farge, Alexis Akwagyiram and Philip BlenkinsopGENEVA, Feb 15 (Reuters) – Three months after the Trumpadministration rejected her, former Nigerian finance ministerNgozi Okonjo-Iweala received unanimous backing on Monday tobecome the first woman and first African director-general of theWorld Trade Organization. A self-declared “doer” with a track record of taking onseemingly intractable problems, Okonjo-Iweala will have her workcut out for her at the trade body, even with Donald Trump, whohad threatened to pull the United States out of theorganisation, no longer in the White House.As director-general, a position that wields limited formalpower, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, will need to broker internationaltrade talks in the face of persistent U.S.-China conflict;respond to pressure to reform trade rules; and counterprotectionism heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.In her acceptance speech at the WTO, she said that getting atrade deal at the next major ministerial meeting would be a “toppriority” and also urged members to reject vaccine nationalism,according to a delegate attending the closed meeting, which washeld virtually. In the same speech, she described the challenges facing thebody as “numerous and tricky but not insurmountable”. She is setto begin work on March 1.The U.S. delegate said that Washington was committed toworking closely with her and would be a “constructive partner”while China’s delegate pledged “full support” for her.EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said he lookedforward to working closely with her to drive “much-needed reformof the institution”.A 25-year veteran of the World Bank, where she oversaw an$81 billion portfolio, Okonjo-Iweala ran against seven othercandidates by espousing a belief in trade’s ability to liftpeople out of poverty.She studied development economics at Harvard afterexperiencing civil war in Nigeria as a teenager. She returned tothe country in 2003 to serve as finance minister and backerspoint to her hard-nose negotiating skills that helped seal adeal to cancel billions of dollars of Nigerian debt with theParis Club of creditor nations in 2005.”She brings stature, she brings experience, a network and atemperament of trying to get things done, which is quite awelcome lot in my view,” former WTO chief Pascal Lamy toldReuters last week. “I think she’s a good choice.”Key to her success will be her ability to operate in thecentre of a “U.S.-EU-China triangle”, he said. The endorsement of the Biden administration cleared the lastobstacle to her appointment.
SWEET BUT STRONGOkonjo-Iweala becomes one of the few female heads of a majormultilateral body. When she joins the WTO’s Geneva lakesideheadquarters her portrait is set to be hung beside others ofmen, mostly white and from rich countries. The Trump administration’s main criticism of her was thatshe lacked direct trade experience compared to her main SouthKorean rival and even supporters say she will have to quicklyget up to speed on the technicalities of trade negotiations.She has rejected this, saying that she has plenty ofexperience of trade plus other expertise.”The qualities I have are even better,” she said.Raised by academics, the mother-of-four earned a reputationfor hard work and modesty amid the pomp of Nigeria’s governingclass, acquaintances say. “She is persistent and stubborn,” said Kingsley Moghalu,former deputy governor of Nigeria’s central bank who worked withher when she was the country’s first female finance minister.Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari welcomed her election,saying it brought “more joy and honour to the country’ Her appointment also was welcomed by people in the streetsof Nigeria’s capital Abuja where Ibe Joy, who works inmarketing, said Okonjo-Iweala’s achievements were an inspirationto young women. “If she can do it we all can do it,” said Joy.
REFORMING THE UNREFORMABLEThe 26-year-old WTO that Okonjo-Iweala inherits after asix-month leadership gap is partially paralysed, thanks to theTrump administration which blocked appointments to its topappeals body that acts as the global arbiter of trade disputes.But even before Trump, negotiators had struggled to clinchdeals that must be agreed by consensus, with the United Statesand other developed WTO members arguing that developingcountries, notably China, cannot cling on to exceptions and thatrules need to change to reflect China’s economic growth.Okonjo-Iweala, who is a special envoy for the World HealthOrganization on COVID-19 and, until recently chair of the boardof global vaccine alliance Gavi, has told Reuters that trade’scontribution to public health would be a priority.WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus calledOkonjo-Iweala the “WTO’s perfect chief”. The WTO currently faces deadlock over an issue of waivingintellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs, with manywealthy countries opposed. High on the to-do list will also be fisheries subsidies, thesubject of the WTO’s main multilateral talks that missed adeadline to conclude by end-2020.Asked about the challenges ahead, she joked that a book shewrote about fixing Nigeria’s broken institutions could wellapply to today’s WTO: ‘Reforming the Unreformable’.”I feel I can solve the problems. I’m a known reformer, notsomeone who talks about it,” she told Reuters in an earlierinterview. “I’ve actually done it”.
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